The holiday season can be delightful for many, but for others, it can be a sad and stressful time. Several of my patients have lamented recently, “I hate the holidays. They are so depressing!”
This month’s column deals with depression – an important topic that can affect the quality of life for many elderly people. During the holiday season, older adults can be more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness and depression, particularly if they have lost loved ones or friends or are suffering from illness or family estrangement.
Depression is a common medical condition that can be easily treated. However, many patients and their loved ones often are reluctant to talk about depression because of the lingering social stigma. Of the 35 million Americans age 65 or older, more than 6.5 million – almost 20 percent – are affected by the condition, and depression is twice as common in women.
Unlike occasional feelings of sadness, which most people experience, depression is a persistent sadness that lasts for months or even years. There are varying degrees and differing types of depression, some of which can interfere significantly with emotional and physical health, as well as quality of life. If untreated, depression can become severe and may eventually lead to suicide.
Major depression is characterized by the following symptoms occurring for at least a two-week period:
• Persistently sad or irritable mood.
• Difficulty sleeping.
• Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
• Feelings of guilt, hopelessness or
• Decreased energy.
• Problems with concentration.
• Change in appetite.
• Slowness in thinking or movement.
• Thoughts of suicide or death.
Patients with depression typically have insomnia and poor appetite. However, they also may have atypical symptoms such as sleeping too much or overeating. In older adults, depression can be more difficult to recognize and may present as confusion, memory problems, social withdrawal and vague physical or pain complaints. Less severe forms of depression (mild and moderate) are diagnosed when patients have some but not all of the symptoms listed above. No matter how mild, depression should be treated to prevent it from becoming crippling.
Depression can be caused by various factors, including biological, psychological and environmental issues. Many experts agree that there is a correlation between depression and an imbalance in different brain chemicals. The holidays can bring reminders of social, emotional and functional losses, such as loss of independence or death of a loved one or friend. These life events and family history also increase one’s risk for becoming depressed.
Depression often can be treated easily with medications and psychotherapy. If you think you or your loved one is suffering from depression or “holiday blues,” please see a doctor. No one should be embarrassed to seek help for depression and your primary care doctor can help you overcome it.
Dr. Hong Phuc-Tran is a board-certified geriatrician with the highly regarded UCLA Geriatrics Program in Santa Monica and Westwood. For more information, call 310.319.4371 or visit www.uclahealth.org.